The best way to describe the tone of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, would be as a haunting and surreal character study with some splashes of dark comedy here and there. It’s Dostoyevsky’s work of fiction by way of the Theatre of the Absurd, a potent mix that’s both inspired and incredibly logical: routine and paranoia are prevalent themes in both Dostoyevsky’s oeuvre and the plays writers like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter have created during their lifetimes. The Double‘s plot, about an introverted and unhappy government clerk who’s horrified when his exact physical double starts working in the same office space, is one that intrigues from the start and finds both the humor, horror and poignancy in its premise, which makes Ayoade’s second directorial effort a wonderful motion picture. But it isn’t one that’s easy to swallow.
What’s initially the most impressive thing about the film is its world. Jesse Eisenberg’s protagonist Simon James lives in one that looks like it’s entirely made out of steel and concrete, a harsh and cold environment that looks incredibly industrial and bare, safe for some pictures of government figure The Colonel, the illusive figure at the head of this totalitarian no man’s land. Right from the start the system is a character all of itself, a presence that looms over everyone and everything, an omnipresent force that hums and drones thanks to the fantastic sound design. Coupled with the fact that there are no natural light sources being used in the film, The Double‘s setting is depressing and unrelenting, which sets the stage perfectly for the paranoia that takes hold of Eisenberg’s character, especially once his double James Simon turns out to be a man very much unlike him. The constant tension generated by the movie’s achievement in terms of staging and Ayoade’s direction really are not to be underestimated and are why The Double sits with you for a while.
There are no two ways about it: The Double is a taxing film because of its heavy atmosphere. That’s why, with a movie like this, one that’s both demanding and absurd, you need a strong actor to anchor the proceedings, someone who makes viewers want to sit through it and invest in their viewing experience. Eisenberg does all that and more, delivering a career-best performance that’s incredibly endearing, nuanced and human. And suave and vile in other places because he actually delivers two great turns: Eisenberg plays both Simon James and James Simon, obviously. Both characters look exactly the same, but because of the acting you are immediately able to distinguish who’s who from no more than a glance. Using his posture, facial expressions and subtle tics Eisenberg gives off two incredibly different vibes, which makes you believe that these characters are actually totally different people, despite all their similarities. He also makes you want to suspend your disbelief, which really is a requirement for The Double: if you are not along for the ride, the story will come apart very early on. If you ride it out though, The Double will deliver a gut-punch ending that’s both disturbing and beautiful in its own unique way.
While The Double is a taxing film, it’s one that’s beautifully crafted and features a knock-out performance by Jesse Eisenberg. 8/10